Michael Dukakis’s Last Stand
In Michael Dukakis, many see a progressive hero. Others see a presidential flop. Now, in the winter of his career, Massachusetts’ political lion makes his final case. —By Robert Huber
At a little after 7 in the morning on a sunny weekday in October, I park on a quiet street in Brookline lined with hundred-year-old homes. I’m early, so I get out of my car to look around; a woman of about 30 walking a terrier comes by, and I tell her what I’m up to, why I left my home near Philadelphia at 2 a.m.: “I’ve come to meet Michael Dukakis.”
“Oh,” she says. “He’s a great neighbor. He trims his own hedge.” She smiles. Dukakis is renowned, of course, for living an ordinary life—for riding the T, shopping at the grocery store, picking up litter when he’s out and about (maybe that’s not so ordinary), and, as I’ve just learned, trimming his own hedge: It’s nicely squared off. “My kids,” the dog walker tells me, “they’re six and four, and they have no idea who lives next door.” Or rather, they know the 84-year-old three-term governor and presidential wannabe as merely a friendly hedge trimmer.
Just then, a paperboy down the street tosses two newspapers to a small, stooped man in blue-plaid pajamas: the Duke!
The dog walker laughs: “Some days he stands out there and waits for his papers.”
I hustle over to introduce myself, and as I do, I put my hand on his blue-plaid shoulder. For some reason, I know that you can do that with Michael Dukakis. In fact, you really want to.
“We’re supposed to be at 8 o’clock, aren’t we?” he says, not unfriendly, exactly, but reminding me that I’m early. I remove my hand from his shoulder.
Yes, I tell him, I was just going to find some breakfast—Dukakis nods and turns back inside, with his Times and Globe.
I have come not just to meet Dukakis, but also to spend the day with him—starting at 8 a.m.—and most important, perhaps, to end the day with him. This evening, Dukakis will moderate a town-hall meeting in Franklin, an hour’s drive southwest of Brookline, where he’s lived all his life. He’s in the midst of one more big push, his current obsession, and something he’s been working on for a long time: getting the city’s North and South stations connected by an underground rail line. “It would be transformative,” he will gush—in how much congestion would be relieved, in how many polluting cars would be taken off the road, in how much time would be saved for commuters, and in the economic boom that would result. It had been included in the Big Dig under Dukakis’s reign, but his baby was stripped away as part of a compromise under Republican President Ronald Reagan—and he’s always yearned for it to happen. It boggles his mind how even the forward-thinking former Governor Deval Patrick and current Governor Charlie Baker—“He’s a smart man; I don’t get it”—have never seen the light.
There’s something else I want to learn more about: A few days earlier, when I told my 92-year-old mother, who has never been to Boston and still has most of her marbles, who I was meeting, there was a pause. Then she said, “The tank guy?” It’s inevitable—at least outside of Massachusetts—that Dukakis’s grand failure when he ran for president against George H.W. Bush in 1988 is the first thing that comes up. Not that he lost, but how he lost: that absurd picture of him popping out of a battle tank, wearing a helmet, grinning; allowing himself to be painted as soft on crime because a Massachusetts murderer named Willie Horton raped a woman and stabbed her companion while on a weekend furlough from prison; not forcefully rebutting the suggestion that he suffered from depression. Dukakis came across as…small. As a wonk, a technocrat. He was passive. And with that, his moment on a national stage—for millions of people like my mother, their only exposure to him—had come and gone, and we were sure we knew just who he was. Now I’ve come to see for myself.
At 8 on the dot, he’s ready: We walk the 2 miles to Northeastern, where Dukakis has taught public policy and management for 27 years. It’s a walk he makes most weekdays, winding along the Emerald Necklace. Always, Dukakis carries a plastic bag, because as he walks he must pick up trash. We talk about his political heroes—Jack Kennedy, especially—as he scampers here and there, like a squirrel chasing nuts, plucking spent cigarette packs and to-go containers and pizza remains. (He draws the line at used condoms.) He suddenly veers left for some morsel of flotsam and almost gets nailed by a speeding bike on the river path.
“Watch out!” the bicyclist, already past, yells.
“Slow down!” Dukakis returns, setting the trash in his bag.
Kennedy, far and away, has been the best president of his lifetime, Dukakis says—a beacon of charm and energy and wit who engendered so much hope for what government could do. The most talented politician Dukakis ever worked with was Bill Clinton, who introduced him at the 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta. Kennedy and Clinton, both so magnetic—able to embrace TV, especially, in a way Dukakis never could—and both so flawed. I wonder if their womanizing, in particular, bothered him, given Dukakis’s careful personal comportment. “He did have a deep flaw,” Dukakis says of Clinton, and as for Kennedy cavorting with White House secretaries while he was president, Dukakis brushes it off: “I don’t see how you could have time for all that. How could you? Anyway, I couldn’t wait to get home.”
To Kitty. They’ve been married for more than half a century, and she’ll be coming with him, tonight, to the town hall in Franklin about the North South Rail Link. Maybe Dukakis is passé to outsiders, but he’s still charging hard here: still pushing, 60 years in, to give his city and state what he is utterly certain they need.
There’s never been a whisper of scandal about Michael Dukakis; he’s followed the beacon of JFK in his own way, helping progressive strivers long after his own political career was over: Deval Patrick went to see Dukakis a year and half before he ran for governor in ’06. Patrick says Dukakis asked questions no other politico did, including not only how he would win, but also why he was running in the first place. “I appreciated that,” Patrick says. “It’s a critical question.” And then on to the how: “He was so different and resonant” on that level, too, Patrick says. “He was all about the importance of grassroots campaigning.” Shoe leather, precinct-to-precinct, town-to-town—very old school. Once Patrick won, both Michael and Kitty were often in his ear: “They supported me and were pains in the ass,” Patrick says, laughing. “They’re both really, really interested in policy.”
Dukakis mentors the other end of the spectrum, too—which is, really, the bottom-line point of teaching: to get smart young people enthused about politics as a calling. Forget that Dukakis is 84—his stamina and commitment remain spectacular.
Three weeks into the fall semester of his public policy class at Northeastern, Dukakis knows all his students’ names, where they’re from, and what they’re interested in, because he does his homework. Today’s class covers health insurance, a subject close to Dukakis’s heart. In his second go-round as governor, he got universal healthcare passed, and even if his successor, Bill Weld, dropped the ball on implementing it, the door was opened for Mitt Romney’s later law. His khakis belted high and too short, wearing a blue-plaid shirt and Docksiders, Dukakis launches with a driving energy, explaining an overpriced system so outrageous, it’s amusing sport to take it apart.
“We have a highly regulated healthcare system. Tory, what do I mean by that?” Dukakis doesn’t really leave time for his student to muster an answer. “A highly regulated healthcare system. Look, in the mid-19th century, surgery was performed by whom? Farmers! Seriously. You can’t do surgery in the United States of America today, Tory, without a medical degree, passing and repassing licensing exams, doing in-service training, and we get great healthcare—none better, assuming you can afford it. It’s highly regulated. How about hospitals? You can’t open up hospitals in this state because you feel like opening up a hospital. Highly regulated. And now 62 percent of healthcare is paid for by government in this country.”
President Lyndon Johnson, Dukakis tells his class of 30, promised the American Medical Association that he would not regulate doctors’ fees, and now Dukakis is really in his element, diving into the head-scratching past: “It lasted until we elected a president of the United States who promised he’d get government off our backs, and his name was Ronald Reagan, and it was under Reagan that we began regulating doctors’ fees, essentially doing what Johnson, of all people, promised the AMA he wouldn’t do. Why? Reagan! Because he was a New Deal Democrat, you know. See if you can find spots he did for Harry Truman in 1948, beating up on the Republicans for opposing school lunches and nutritional programs for kids. That was Reagan. Then what happened? He met Nancy, who came from a very conservative family, her father was a doctor, and he did a complete 180. But, still fairly pragmatic…‘Hey, [Medicare is] going to bust my budget here,’ and he worked with a Democratic Congress to provide for the first time that the government could set rates for doctors and hospitals when it came to Medicare, and we regulate Medicare rates—trust me, folks.…It was George W. Bush who proposed the gradual inclusion of prescription drugs as part of the Medicare benefit, but, with an absolute prohibition against [Health and Human Services] attempting to negotiate prices.”
During the hour-and-a-half class, a couple of Dukakis’s obsessions emerge: One is the truth, as he sees it—what really got us into this mess. The other is sense—what we should do about it. Their collision creates a useful tension in Dukakis’s hands, and the class is his, spellbound. It’s a little like walking with Dukakis when he picks up litter—how can you not do it, too? It’s his sureness. Dukakis is so sure about what’s right, even on the smallest level, that you reject him at your own moral peril.
So it has always gone with him, a sometimes one-man band on the way government should operate. Dukakis made his bones as a state legislator back in the 1960s, determined to clean up an old-school, corrupt, patronage-ridden mess of state politics, which was the same mess he attacked during his first term as governor during the ’70s. There was a problem, however: His assumption that he alone had the answers turned the legislature against him, and he lost the Democratic nomination for reelection to political hack Ed King. “I was arrogant back then,” he admits—not personally arrogant, but arrogant in thinking all the right policy answers were his.
Dukakis’s energy for what’s righteous is still strong. When King died in September 2006, former governors gathered at his wake, and Dukakis saw it as an opportunity to lecture Republicans Weld and Romney about President Bush’s overly aggressive policy on terrorism. Tom O’Neill—Tip’s son, and a lieutenant governor under Dukakis and King—told him: “Mike, why don’t you slow down? We’re at Eddie King’s wake.”
“They need to hear it,” Dukakis told O’Neill.
“He was more than a true believer,” O’Neill says, laughing, mostly in admiration. “His compass was unshakable.”
But Dukakis did learn. He learned to calm down, to listen, and to bring others in. When he regained the governorship in 1983, he was the right guy at the right time, as a suddenly booming economy could support the Duke’s big ideas about big government. It was, after all, the era of the Massachusetts Miracle.
Dukakis’s obsession with connecting the North and South stations stretches back as far as he can remember. He has been riding public transit—streetcars at first—by himself since he was five years old, in 1938. It gave him freedom to go downtown as a boy in the city he loved, to wander. To stare up at the home of Paul Revere on North Square, to imagine that he was Johnny Tremain, the fictional acolyte of the great silversmith. Dukakis loved history. Or to go to baseball games. All his life the T has been his preferred mode of travel, especially for the dozen years when he was governor: taking the Green Line to Beacon Hill, talking to people also heading to work or school about how their lives were going, about what he should be doing better. It was a lovely symbol of his hands-on style, because of that hard reality: He moved into his day just as the people he served moved into theirs.
So this is personal.
As a first-term state legislator in the ’60s, he worked to kill the state’s highway plan; later, as governor, Dukakis used $3 billion in federal money that had been allotted for highways to fix the T instead. But then, in order to get the necessary federal funding for the Big Dig, Dukakis had to drop the North South Rail Link from the package. “It’s so painful,” he says, laughing dryly, “I don’t even want to recount it. We had to back off on the rail component because it was taking one precious highway lane. Jesus!”
From there, the idea of a North South Rail Link languished, due in large part to a Big Dig hangover. But two years ago, Dukakis saw an opening: Former Governor Weld had always supported the North South Rail Link, and Weld is close to Governor Charlie Baker. Dukakis and Weld spent an hour and a half presenting their case to Baker, who seemed more intrigued by expanding South Station. Dukakis and Weld also put together a working group to promote the connector—mayors and legislators and other players—a bloc 160 strong. They’re now getting New Hampshire politicians on board, because this little piece of underground railroad will touch everyone, all over New England.
Which is why Dukakis and Kitty are headed to Franklin later tonight, for one in a series of community forums to build support.
One more thing: If Dukakis gets his way, the final segment of rail we need to connect Washington with Maine—the center of American politics with the northern hinterland—will be built. So it’s a big thing in that way, too, a metaphor for a world in which cars and congestion and big oil will stop ruling the way we live.
All this begs a question, however: Is it really so big? It seems like the North South Rail Link is exactly the sort of thing—a pair of 1.5-mile tunnels—that Dukakis would end up championing, on a warm night in October in a small-town museum, where the displays of military uniforms and rifles and such have been pushed back to make room for a panel of local politicians and a few dozen curious folk. They listen raptly to their former governor in his element, emceeing a two-hour talk on trains. On how important they are, and how desperately we need them.
In Dukakis’s office after class, current and former students pop in for advice. I ask him if he makes any concessions for being 84. There is one: “In the afternoons, about 3, I get tired. I could use a short nap.” He used to keep a pillow in a file-cabinet drawer in his office, but now the windows that look into the larger adjoining office cut off his privacy. “It’s hard to hide,” he says.
Today, there will be no nap. An ex-student of his now working at the state Department of Transportation shows up, which is an opportunity for Dukakis to learn a bit about the atmosphere there, note the stupidity of the T not having a head for two and a half years, and to see if there are any new avenues to promote his North South Rail Link. He has no plans to retire.
Dukakis comes from not only hard-working but long-living stock: His mother, Euterpe, campaigned for him nationally in 1988—at the age of 85. In 1913, she emigrated to the States from Greece at age nine, and was the first Greek-American woman to go off to college unescorted; she graduated from Bates, in Maine. Michael’s father, Panos, came to America in 1912 at age 15; he didn’t speak a word of English. Twelve years later, he graduated from Harvard Medical School. “I have no idea how he managed to do that,” Dukakis says. He doesn’t seem to put much stock in weighing how anyone—his father, himself, or those who disagree with his political positions—got there; what interests Dukakis is pursuit. And hard work. Panos had a private practice where he worked seven days a week for 50 years.
Dukakis’s liberalism was stoked by his mother—he remembers that he and Euterpe opposed the Vietnam War in the early ’60s, when he was a 30-year-old state legislator; Panos supported it. His sensitivity to social injustice was shaped as a boy in Brookline, where people of different faiths kept separate, and people of color were not welcome. When he went to Swarthmore, outside Philadelphia, in the early ’50s, Dukakis discovered that the school’s handful of black students couldn’t get their hair cut in the local barbershops, so he became a campus barber to cut their hair. “Don’t ask me why I was instinctively outraged,” he says. “But I was.”
During office hours, Dukakis takes a call from a Cypriot journalist who interviews him about America’s current Donald Trump–led place in the world. Dukakis isn’t bashful about attacking Trump—“He’s a walking personality disorder”—but shies away from any notion that this period is worse than others. Later, I’ll ask him to compare this era to the ’60s in terms of upheaval and the feeling that the American center just might not hold, but Dukakis immediately reaches farther back: “The ’50s, with McCarthyism, the racism then, that was a rough time.” When Dukakis was drafted into the Army in 1955 after graduating from Swarthmore, he discovered that the FBI had apparently been tapping his school’s switchboard and had a file on him. Later, he would learn that the Army wanted to know, for example, why he was raising money for the ACLU and Students for Democratic Action. “That was not a happy time in the history of our country,” Dukakis says.
Given that he’s been out of office for a long time, there’s little reason for Dukakis not to speak his mind when asked about the possible role of Russia in getting Trump elected: “It’s not that I’m not concerned about Russia meddling, but I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that the U.S. has meddled in more domestic elections in other countries than practically any other country on the face of the earth. We’re tapping the phones of the Russian ambassador every day!” Dukakis laughs. “So it’s a little interesting for us to be accusing them of meddling. We don’t simply hack [other governments], we overthrow them. I’m not sure Americans remember this, but it was our overthrow of the democratically elected government of Iran in 1953 that triggered this Iranian antagonism to us. I’m not sure we’re justified in complaining about meddling.”
Dukakis’s leftist views are no surprise, certainly. At an annual event that afternoon at the University of Massachusetts, Dukakis and former Senate President Billy Bulger speak about political activism. There, Whitey’s brother lets the political science students in on a little secret about the Duke: “He’s a Communist, you know”—delivered so dryly no one even laughs. But Dukakis’s openness about his true leanings is unusual for a presidential candidate, even one whose run came three decades ago.
Dukakis willingly admits two reasons he lost that election to Bush in 1988: One, he was advised that building grassroots support in key states was a fine approach for a city council run, but not necessary for the presidency—“Obama showed us how that was wrong.” And two, he freely cops to the criticism everyone cites—that when the Bush campaign attacked his mental health, his stance on the death penalty, and his foreign policy toughness, Dukakis didn’t fight back. “And that,” he says, “is on me.”
But you wonder if there was something more in play. Jack Corrigan, a longtime Boston-based political operative who worked on that campaign, says, “There was a question of whether his ambition to be president was strong enough compared to his earlier ambition to be governor—Dukakis hadn’t focused his life on running for president. He had focused his life on running for and being governor. It wasn’t like Bill Clinton: Everybody knew he would run for president.”
The campaign was certainly unfocused. Tom O’Neill, who has known Dukakis since the ’60s, wonders now if, in his heart of hearts, he really didn’t want to be president if he had to compromise his values. “I think that’s possible,” O’Neill says. “I think he’s very decent. And I think he knew what he would have to do to become president.” As he got closer, O’Neill suggests, an unpleasant possibility loomed: “The dark and difficult decisions to make in order to preserve the lifestyle of America.”
Asked about that, Dukakis laughs. “I love Tommy,” he says, “but you don’t start down that road if you feel that way. I think I was getting tired of the campaign—it’s very long. What I didn’t realize is that once you win the nomination, it’s a whole different ball game. You’ve got to start all over.”
As for the image that will be, no doubt, at the top of his obituary, the thing that even my 92-year-old mother cited: a grinning Dukakis popping out of a tank in 1988. Does it bother him to be remembered for that? “It doesn’t,” he says. “It was a winnable election and I lost it.” Does he still think about it? “Not these days. Good God! At some point you move on. If you lose, you lose. Suck it up and move on.”
Dukakis doesn’t seem built to sit around and worry anything to death. After his presidential defeat, friends urged him to take some time off. Nope. He got on the T and came back to the State House the next day because there was work to do. It was a terrible time; national politics had turned him into a punch line and Massachusetts’ economy began unraveling during the final two years of his third term. Worst of all, though, was Kitty’s mental state: In light of the pressure of the campaign and the defeat, her ongoing problems with alcohol and depression had taken a bad turn.
Later that same afternoon, Dukakis and I take the T back to his home in Brookline, where, as Kitty fusses with their year-old terrier in their large, high-ceilinged kitchen, her husband cooks me turkey meatballs with aioli over spaghetti. (Dukakis makes the gesture seem natural: If a journalist is going to hang around all day, he should get dinner.) They bought their 10-room duplex for $25,000 in 1971, “and the bank thought that was a lot of money,” Dukakis says. It’s now assessed for $1.5 million, a figure the former governor trots out often.
Kitty, immediately open and friendly, enjoys having sport with Michael, and it’s immediately apparent that she gives him something to do, perhaps several things at once. Kitty bugs him for not answering the phone while he’s making me dinner on the fly (she’s not hungry) and for not returning a call from an old friend yesterday. In fact, there are many calls he needs to return, maybe 50—for God’s sake, he doesn’t have time at the moment.
After Kitty says she remembers the day she got married to her first husband but not the date she stopped drinking and went to AA, Michael, always a stickler for accuracy, corrects her: “Remember, you had a few slips.”
“You don’t have to be such a lightning rod,” Kitty says, laughing. “You know what I miss? Michael hates this when I admit it.”
They say it together: “Smoking.”
“My closest friend…smokes four cigarettes a day,” Kitty says.
“Seems a little ridiculous,” Michael says. Why not just quit?
Mostly what Kitty seems is vulnerable—charmingly so—and carefully attended to by her husband. In early October, she’s in the midst of a round of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), which they believe saved her life almost two decades ago after nothing else would alleviate her depression. She gets treatments periodically.
On the way southwest to Franklin, through rush-hour traffic, I ask Kitty about the particularly rough time for her, when Michael was running for president.
“After the fact, I look back, I don’t quite understand how I did what I did,” she says. “I’m now reading magazines from that period—no wonder Barbara Bush didn’t like me.”
“Why, sweetie?” Michael wonders.
“Oh, they gave her such a hard time, she wasn’t as attractive or as bright…”
“At the time,” Dukakis explains, veering into substance, “we really didn’t understand Kitty’s disease. For a long time, we thought it was seasonal. We didn’t pick up for a long time this eight- or nine-month cyclical thing, which had nothing to do with seasons.”
“Most people have particular things happen in their lives they kind of point to,” Kitty says.
I wonder if the medical establishment has turned a corner in understanding how much ECT can help.
“I think so; it’s just so obvious,” Kitty says.
“At least some of this has to do with Kitty.”
“I don’t know, Michael.”
“Oh yeah. I don’t think there’s any question about it.… For a long time, it was a treatment that was feared—everyone had seen the movie.”
“Except me,” Kitty says with a laugh. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Jack Nicholson’s character emerges from ECT a shadow of his former rambunctious self.
“[My doctor] right away saw differences, when I started having treatments again,” Kitty says. “He’d hear it in my voice.”
“Sweetie, the first time wasn’t differences—you were just a different person. Overnight.”
“What do you mean?”
“When you had your first treatment.”
“You mean, recently?”
“No, no, way back,” he says, trying to get her to zero in. “It was a miracle, for God’s sake. I’m sitting there saying, ‘My God, this wife of mine has gone through 17 years of this, if somebody, a year or two into that 17 years, had said it’s obvious it’s not working, let’s try ECT, she could have avoided years…’”
Of a great deal of trouble and pain, they believe. Her husband is right: Kitty has become the leading national advocate for ECT, speaking out, inviting anyone who needs help to contact her through her website, and pushing the medical community. Steve Seiner, who runs McLean’s neurotherapeutics program, where Kitty gets her treatments, says that “as an ECT patient and spokesperson, nobody comes close to her.”
As for why Kitty would take the leap to go public with her problems, which seems especially risky for a political family, Dukakis shrugs, because the point is so obvious: “It is what we do.” Kitty, he says, has saved lives.
Now, in the fading light of the car, she is having trouble reading their printed-out directions. In the past year, Kitty stopped driving. Some years ago, Michael was in the back seat grading papers when she fell asleep at the wheel and hit a median—his whiplash has given him a permanently stiff neck and is one of the reasons he’s so stooped. Finally, I direct him from the back seat via my iPhone, and this is the only time Dukakis seems…old.
Michael and Kitty enter the town-hall event to a standing ovation, as thanks for their long schlep; this is his third town hall aimed at building support for the North South Rail Link. The idea has a long way to go, and may never get there, because it will certainly take more interest and drive than Governor Baker seems willing to put into it, and substantial federal money. Neither of which gives Dukakis pause.
Now, beaming, suddenly not so old, the Duke lets it rip one more time:
“We’re facing a very serious transportation crisis in Massachusetts. I know ‘crisis’ is the most overused word in the English language these days, but I’m serious about it.”
To drive home the city’s need, as well as the stakes, Dukakis invokes Amazon’s very public search for a second headquarters somewhere in America: “They want a transportation system in whatever state they choose that can get their workers from home to work and back again, quickly, easily, and efficiently. And thanks primarily to this foolish gap of a mile—and there was a special commission, in 1914, recommending this. And it was part of my plan which we sent to Washington, and, unfortunately, we ended up with all kinds of problems with the Reagan administration at the time. Finally, in order to override a Reagan veto of the Big Dig,” Dukakis had to scrap his plan for the North–South connector. “We never got the connection. Crazy? Yeah.”
It goes without saying: If transportation is a deal-breaker, Amazon won’t be picking Boston for its second national headquarters.
“So here we are again,” Dukakis continues. “One of the interesting things, as we keep talking about all this polarization, is a guy named Bill Weld, who succeeded me [and] agrees with me on some things and not on others, is a passionate supporter of the North South Rail Link. You know why? He grew up on Long Island, and went to private school in Concord. And he’s never forgotten taking the train from New York City to South Station, and having to drag his trunk across the city”—the Franklin locals, 100 strong, are eating it up now, and Dukakis laughs, too—“to North Station to go to Concord. He tells that story all the time. The two of us have joined together on this, in an effort to persuade the guy in the governor’s office that this is the project he ought to be focusing on, and not wasting time spending—are you ready for this?—$2 billion to add seven tracks to South Station. Absolutely crazy, folks! Seven tracks. Two billion dollars. When they fill up, then what? And what about the folks on the north side, who come down from the North Shore, Merrimack Valley. Bam, hit North Station, then two trains, three changes, walking, running, trying to get to work. It’s crazy! I have colleagues who come from the North Shore, you ought to be able to get on a commuter train and come to Ruggles, the Northeastern station. Can’t do it. So what do they do? They drive!” Which is causing terrible gridlock. “We don’t have a lot of time for this, folks. Frankly, at my age, I feel like a million bucks—my mother used to say, if you want to live a long life, pick your parents carefully. I want to ride that thing.”
Michael Dukakis started his day at 7 a.m. waiting for the Globe and Times to be tossed to him, and here he is, a dozen hours later, stumping for the city and state he loves. Later, asked what he thinks his legacy will be, he says, “Oh, God.” What an awful question. Then he gives a typically understated answer, a tepid pat on the back for what public service should be.
Fred Salvucci was Dukakis’s transportation secretary for all three of his terms as governor, and he’s a little more willing to take on the legacy: “In 1975, the day he was sworn in, he brought [senior staff] into the governor’s office and said, ‘Look, I got elected. I’m a politician. Your job is to give the people of Massachusetts the best government they’ve ever seen. You can’t get within a thousand miles of political fundraising for me. I don’t care if Kitty calls you. You’ll be fired if you get anywhere near that.’”
“I was amazed,” Salvucci says. “This guy really means it. And it was like a huge weight was lifted—it’s a big state, a lot of competing interests, you could do a favor for this guy, that guy, but he basically said, ‘Run the government on its merits.’ He was such a privilege to work for.”
But there’s still that question of size, of how Michael Dukakis could not translate to national voters. Ultimately, is there something limited—something merely local—about who he is?
“People joke about picking up litter,” Salvucci, who now teaches at MIT and Harvard, says. “When he started doing it, I started doing it. It’s not crazy, it’s the right thing. He believes in little things as well as big things. The city shouldn’t be a trash can. The fact that he took the Green Line to the State House—no police car, no bodyguard—because he believes in public transportation. He practiced what he preached, which is very unusual. And inspiring.”
Unusual and inspiring then, and such a departure now—at least compared to how things operate in Washington. Though Dukakis himself says that politics is far less corrupt than it once was, which is part of both his charm and his legacy: He’s an eternal optimist. Dukakis now sees the mess of Donald Trump’s presidency bringing more progressive young people into politics.
On the way home from the town-hall forum that night, Michael Dukakis, reluctant driver, takes a wrong turn and gets us spinning around the endless loop of a cloverleaf, through a mess of highway construction.
“Michael!” Kitty lets out a loud sigh.
“God, look at this, will you?” he says. “What the hell are we doing here?… God.”
“God is right. Michael. I don’t know why you—”
“Because all of that construction stuff is very confusing,” he says, sounding annoyed himself for the first time all day.
“You should have asked,” Kitty says.
Then, suddenly, Dukakis sees an opportunity: “What I want to know is why we’re spending money on this interchange. We’ve got about 200 bridges in the state in desperate need of paint.”
In the dark car, Michael Dukakis shakes his head, because it simply doesn’t make any sense.